Many moms worry that their mother-son relationship will be damaged when their adult sons marry and start families of their own. Here are some tips on building a bond that lasts.
The email landed in my inbox from a total stranger, and it arrived with an almost audible thud so heavy were the emotions it carried. It came from the heart of an expectant mother who had just received the news that the baby she was carrying was a boy. She had been hoping for a girl, because she had read discouraging accounts of mother-son relationships and was spiraling into disappointment.
Her feelings of dread were rooted in her family of origin. Her two brothers—now adults—were not at all close to their mom, and looking around, she believed her bias was confirmed with evidence from other families in which the daughters were close to their moms—while the sons were not.
She presented her fears to me in this way:
“Will my son still want to have a relationship with me when he is a man? Will I be replaced by a wife and her family? Is it really true that ‘a son is a son till he takes a wife, but a daughter’s a daughter for the rest of her life?’”
She had stumbled across some of my work online, had read about my life with four growing-up sons, and she wrote to me looking for reassurance. Was I close to my teen and adult sons? Would I share a little about my experience of building a relationship with them? Did I have thoughts on how much of the relationship I have with them is due to their personality versus our home environment?
Her questions and concerns led to an email correspondence that uncovered the depth of her fears and pushed me to put into words some of the foundations and principles that had been guiding my parenting life with much-loved sons.
Since the correspondence happened as a Q&A, I’ll open my email inbox and invite you to sit right here around the glowing screen with whatever fears you bring to the table about ‘losing’ your son one day when he grows up. Together, let’s examine the finer points of maintaining a warm closeness in that sweet mother-son relationship.
HOW DO YOU STAY CLOSE TO YOUR SONS AS THEY GROW UP?
I realized when my boys were very small that maintaining a relationship with them as they grew older was going to be a challenge, because I’m a ‘do-er’. When they needed help in the tub or someone to make them a sandwich, I knew exactly what to do, and I was all over it.
However, that physically dependent stage when I was clipping 40 fingernails and 40 toenails besides my own was (mercifully) short, and it’s not long before our sons no longer need our help or care. We have an opportunity, then, during those years of physical closeness, to build cords of love by talking and listening, making space for their stories and their feelings—big and small.
This did not come easily for me, but I forced myself to lift my eyes from my work (most of the time) when they were talking to me. I tried (and still try) to anticipate ways that I can be helpful, but I especially want my demeanor and my schedule to communicate my openness to their needs and my willingness to put my own life on hold to be available to them.
HOW DO YOU STAY CLOSE TO YOUR MARRIED SONS?
Marriage has actually enhanced my relationship with our eldest. Geography poses a challenge with our second, but technology is a great gift that keeps us close. Our third married son has only recently tied the knot, so the jury’s still out, but he and I have multiple points of intersection, so I’m not concerned.
I recommend that moms disregard the popular wedding wisdom for mothers of the groom. Your role is NOT mainly to “show up and shut up.” Long before the wedding, you are laying groundwork for your son (and your new daughter-in-law) to make room within their new life for your voice and your presence.
From the start, I have expressed my love for the brave soul who is marrying into our family and have communicated my intent to support and encourage them both as a couple in any way I can. Learning to offer help with no strings attached has been a crash course in humility, and the lesson has been reinforced in recent years as our grown children actually have offered to us their gifts of wisdom or practical help.
HOW OFTEN DO YOU VISIT OR PHONE YOUR MARRIED SONS?
I don’t phone them as often as I should. I get pretty caught up in life here at home. My husband is more likely to pick up the phone or initiate a video chat, and I am learning to put on the brakes and to join him when that happens.
Often, when the phone rings and it’s one of the guys, he’s likely to ask for his father, but I have no desire to talk lawn mowers and chainsaws, so that’s fine. On the plus side of the ledger, I do get occasional phone calls about parenting or laundry issues—and sometimes just to chat.
Here is some specific wisdom to bear in mind about visits and calls:
1. An Invitation Is Not a Summons
Missing a family gathering is not a shunnable offense, and it’s important to have that conversation with your kids early in their marriages. Life is full, so we are all free to say no to invitations.
Additionally, their holidays will now include the need to gather with both sides of their family, and I never want to be guilty of making my kids feel as though their in-laws are my personal competition for their time and attention.
2. Don’t Keep Score
If your son hasn’t called in a long time, and you want to hear his voice, then (for heaven’s sake!) call him! Don’t fall into the trap of tracking who last called and whose ‘turn’ it is to make the move. For years and from a close vantage point, I watched a parent and child dynamic unfold in which each one was waiting for the other to call—the end result was two silent phones and a fractured, bitter relationship.
3. When You Are Offering To Be Helpful, Make Sure Everyone Is Operating From the Same Definition of ‘Help’
I decided from the outset that I would prefer to run the risk of being accused of being too distant rather than being accused of meddling. It became important to consider my offers of help from a different perspective before jumping in.
Would a bag of green beans from my garden be a welcome gift or a lot of work that no one wants right now?
Is a Christmas season overnight with the grandparents a fun time for the kids and a break for Mom and Dad? Or is it a crazy-making schedule buster?
Is the unsolicited advice on the tip of my tongue really necessary?
IS MY LONG-TERM RELATIONSHIP WITH MY SON BEYOND MY CONTROL OR CAN SOME GROUNDWORK REALLY MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
Yes. It is beyond your control AND groundwork really will make a difference.
Holding on and letting go are opposites, for sure, but in the mothering life, they are two sides of one huge coin.
Once, in the heat of an argument, one of my sons flung these words at me: “How dare you have a plan for MY life?” My response, flung back with tears was, “I challenge you to invest as much in anything as I have invested in your life and NOT have a plan in mind!”
But he was right. My plan was getting in the way of seeing his life as he had begun to envision it. I had some catching up to do in the letting-go department, but I have never been sorry for all the ways I hung on tightly to the hearts of my four sons.
Most important of all, friends, I don’t want you to think there’s a magic formula for being a ‘successful’ boy mom or a series of steps that will automatically result in a strong mother-son relationship long term. As you become a student of your son’s needs and nature, you are in the best position of all to assess the boundaries and the points of connection that are going to define your life with him.
Above all, know this: My solid relationship with my sons is more a product of grace than a result of any particular thing I’ve done. Trust God to instill in your heart a genuine and unselfish love for your boy and then hold on to the good gift of his ever expanding world, the good of him doing things in his own way, and the good that you, too, will be changing, learning, and growing alongside him as you cheer him on into adulthood.
Boy moms: How do you foster a positive relationship with your adult sons? What advice would you give to a younger mom seeking to develop a lasting bond with her son(s)?
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